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Reluctance: the new challenge

It may be that raising the compulsory leaving age for education and training to 18 finally puts colleges on the radar of the national media in a way which gives them that much-needed political clout currently enjoyed by universities.

This week, though, colleges can be pleased with their position of relative obscurity.

As we report on our front page, ministers' expectations of the resulting success rate of staying on are rather modest.

Of course, compulsion will reduce success rates. It also raises the spectre of resources and lecturers' time being diverted from the willing student towards the reluctant learner. The policy may be less effective than creating a two-year entitlement to post-16 education to be spent over a lifetime, which would have allowed some to drop out and return to the fold when they felt better motivated.

And there is the question of whether any service really performs at its best when it has a captive clientele.

The challenge for colleges will be to reinforce the notion that what they have to offer is fundamentally more appropriate and exciting than the school curriculum and to make sure that lack of enthusiasm among the conscripts will not rub off on students who would have freely chosen to stay on.

If these challenges are met, the many voices - including ours - that have been sceptical about raising the leaving age may yet be proved wrong. We hope so.

For it to work, though, colleges will need a funding deal that reflects the added complexity of dealing with reluctant students and the freedom to design courses that work. This way, FE will remain what it is today, a fresh opportunity, and not simply a two-year extension of an education system that is failing too many children.

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